‘Can Marriage Ever Change? Homosexuality and the Church’

The UK government has recently initiated a “consultation” on same-sex marriage. The Anglican dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral has urged the Church of England to welcome any couple that wishes to take on the virtues of Christian marriage. The senior Catholic cleric in the UK, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, has strenuously argued the Vatican’s position and opposes and possible change in British law.

This week’s edition of excellent UK Catholic newspaper The Tablet features three prominent Catholic thinkers–Timothy Radcliffe, Martin Pendergast, and Tina Beattie–reflecting on the issue of marriage in the Church.

See below:

‘Marriage is founded on sexual difference and potential for fertility’ by Fr. TIMOTHY RADCLIFFE, former Master General of the Dominican order and a widely respected spiritual guide, author, and lecturer.

The Catholic Church does not oppose gay marriage. It considers it to be impossible. If it were possible, then we would have to support it since the Church tells us that we must oppose all discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The issue is not gay rights but a wonderful truth of our humanity, which is that we are animals: rational animals according to the medievals, spiritual animals open to sharing the life of God.

In the sacraments, the fundamental dramas of our bodily life are blessed and become open to God’s grace: birth and death, eating and drinking, sex and illness. St Thomas Aquinas says that grace perfects nature and does not destroy it.

Marriage is founded on the glorious fact of sexual difference and its potential fertility. Without this, there would be no life on this planet, no evolution, no human beings, no future. Marriage takes all sorts of forms, from the alliance of clans through bride exchange to modern romantic love. We have come to see that it implies the equal love and dignity of man and woman. But everywhere and always, it remains founded on the union in difference of male and female. Through ­ceremonies and sacrament this is given a deeper meaning, which for Christians includes the union of God and humanity in Christ.

This is not to denigrate committed love of people of the same sex. This too should be cherished and supported, which is why church leaders are slowly coming to support same-sex civil unions. The God of love can be present in every true love. But “gay marriage” is impossible because it attempts to cut loose marriage from its grounding in our biological life. If we do that, we deny our humanity. It would be like trying to make a cheese soufflé without the cheese, or wine without grapes.

From the beginning, Christianity has stood up for the beauty and dignity of our bodily life, blessed by our God who became flesh and blood like us. This has always seemed a little scandalous to “spiritual” people, who think that we should escape the messy realities of bodies. And so the Church had to oppose Gnosticism in the second century, Manichaeism in the fourth, Catharism in the thirteenth. These all either had contempt for the body or regarded it as unimportant.

We, too, influenced as we are by Cartesianism, tend to think of ourselves as minds trapped in bodies, ghosts in machines. A friend said to me the other day: “I am a soul, but I have a body.” But the Catholic trad­ition has always insisted on the fundamental unity of the human person. Aquinas famously said: “I am not my soul.”

Lynne Featherstone, the Equalities Minister, is right to say the Churches do not have an exclusive right to determine who can marry – but nor does the State, because we cannot simply decide by some mental or legal act what it means to be a human being. Our civilisation will flourish only if it recognises the gift of our bodily existence, which includes the amazing creativity of sexual difference, lifted up into love. Giving formal recognition to this through the institution of marriage in no way disparages the blessings brought to us by gay people.

Timothy Radcliffe OP is a former master of the Dominicans. His latest book is Taking the Plunge: living baptism and confirmation, to be published by Continuum on 28 April.

‘Rather than buying into a marital bond, the sacramentality of such unions is what many of us strive to live out’ by MARTIN PENDERGAST

Timothy Radcliffe is trying to be typically generous to lesbian and gay people in his comments. Nevertheless when he states, in much less strident tones than some religious leaders, that “marriage” cannot be redefined by either State or Church, he has got himself into a double bind. Church and State have frequently redefined marriage and its structures over centuries due to a variety of factors: cultural patterns and religious influences, as well as social and human development. The model of marriage that we have today is rooted more strongly in eighteenth- and nineteenth-­century social patterns than it is in earlier religious traditions.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, David could write of the love shared between himself and Jonathan as surpassing even that of a man and woman. The relationship between the Roman centurion and his beloved “servant” who was healed (made whole) by Jesus in the gospel story is now widely accepted by scholars to indicate an affirmation of the love between the two men. Then there is the love between Ruth and Naomi, between Felicity and Perpetua, if the traditions are to be respected.

I believe Timothy Radcliffe risks idealising marriage too strongly, seeing it through his own dedicated prism of vowed celibacy. He states that “marriage is founded on the glorious fact of sexual difference and its potential fertility”. But the social and anthropological structures of marriage are rooted not in biology but in relationality. As the Hebrew Scriptures say: “It is not good for a person to be alone.” Also, what of those who clearly have no potential for fertility – are they to be prevented from marrying, limited to a version of civil unions?

Faith communities have redefined marriage throughout their history, countenancing and rejecting polygamous marriage, allowing divorce and remarriage, and the Second Vatican Council stated that the ends of marriage are twofold, not solely based upon procreation. In medieval times the focus was so strongly on betrothal rites that marriage, in some places, was a rarity, since so few people could fulfil the social and economic requirements for a marriage to take place before the altar. And what of all those “sworn brotherhood” rites, adapted also to include same-sex female partners, identified by researchers such as Alan Bray and John Boswell? In spite of all this, I am not a supporter of same-sex marriage for myself. I hold, conscientiously, that the institution of marriage, in spite of all its cultural and social variability, is essentially patriarchal and not a status I wish to adopt.

The essence of civil unions is that they are based on an equality of persons legally expressed in a mutual signing of a contractual covenant, rather than expressed in vows of subjection, one to another. It is this value of equality that same-sex couples in civil unions bring to the common good. Rather than buying into a marital bond, the sacramentality of such unions is what many of us strive to live out. It is to be hoped this will increasingly be recognised by faith communities and their leadership. Happily, many congregation members, parents and families have got this message.

Martin Pendergast is gay, Catholic and a founder member of the Cutting Edge Consortium, which promotes equality and human rights across religions and beliefs.


‘Marriage is not just about sex but about a lifelong commitment to bodily unity in difference with another human beingby TINA BEATTIE

If we allow the marriage between Christ and the Church to become the mystery within which all human loving participates and towards which all human love is drawn, and if we accept that sexual love is good even when it is non-procreative, can we not go beyond this “impossibility” of gay marriage?

Marriage is not just about sex but about a lifelong commitment to bodily unity in difference with another human being in all the interwoven materiality of our lives. Yes, of course, we are our bodies, and in some species (not all) the reproduction of the species depends upon heterosexual intercourse. Yet couldn’t marriage become an inclusive rather than an exclusive sacrament?

A good heterosexual marriage models a fertile way of human loving that entails a lifelong commitment to the other and an openness to the vulnerable outsider (a newborn child is definitely such a person, but so is any person in need of the love and stability that a loving relationship can offer). A sexual relationship – homosexual or heterosexual, fertile or infertile – which is turned in on itself and closed to others, which lacks permanent commitment for better or worse, or which is violent and abusive, is not what Christians mean by marriage.

If we want to understand the sacrament, we need to look to Christ and the Church, not to the abundant diversity of participation within that sacramental love that constitutes our bodily human relationships. I’ve been married for 37 years and I have four children, but the loving relationships of my gay friends have helped me to understand more deeply what marriage means as a partnership of equals. I hope that they in turn have been enriched by their married heterosexual friends, and have better understood what their love means within the sacramental love of Christ and the Church.

In these times of radical change in our understanding of sexuality and human dignity (especially the full and equal dignity of women in this life and not just in the life to come), maybe we heterosexuals need the marriages of our homosexual friends to help us to understand what marriage looks like when it’s not corrupted by traditions of domination and subordination.

Professor Tina Beattie is director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton.

Read more from The Tablet.

DOMA Left Out in the Cold, Obama Administration Won’t Defend

The Obama administration is bowing out of the fight to maintain a constitutional definition of marriage as one man and one woman. It will no longer defend DOMA, a law the administration thinks is unjust.

The Justice Department announced this afternoon that it will drop all its legal involvements with Public Law No. 104-199, 110 Stat. 2419 (aka the falsely named “Defense of Marriage Act”) passed in 1996 that prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

This is the law that was signed under Clinton (along with “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in the military) that mandated the federal government to define marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman (DOMA, Section 3). Attorney General Eric Holder said this afternoon:

Much of the legal landscape has changed in the 15 years since Congress passed DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act]. The Supreme Court has ruled that laws criminalizing homosexual conduct are unconstitutional. Congress has repealed the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Several lower courts have ruled DOMA itself to be unconstitutional. Section 3 of DOMA will continue to remain in effect unless Congress repeals it or there is a final judicial finding that strikes it down, and the President has informed me that the Executive Branch will continue to enforce the law. But while both the wisdom and the legality of Section 3 of DOMA will continue to be the subject of both extensive litigation and public debate, this Administration will no longer assert its constitutionality in court.” Read the whole statement here.

The Obama administration has been strongly in favor of civil and equal rights for gays and lesbians, but was forced to act as “the government” in many lawsuits aimed at proving DOMA unconstitutional.

With today’s declaration, the administration is bowing out of the fight. It will no longer defend a law it thinks is unjust. It’ll let the states and lower courts work it out.

And, for a powerful video on a similar issue in the Iowa House of Representatives, watch The Hawkeye Kid defend his moms.

Clarification of Thought: New Gay Marriage Ruling in California

Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker (AP Photo)

This week, in the nation’s first federal trial on same-sex marriage, Judge Vaughn R. Walker ruled that California’s Proposition 8 that banned same-sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantees of due process and equal protection (Judge Strikes California’s Ban on Same-Sex Marriage, Proposition 8).

Judge Walker’s ruling is very important for further study. I found his legal brief to be extremely cogent. Whether you are “for” or “against” gay marriage, it is worth the read to gain deeper understanding in what the state’s interest is in marriage – and how that interest has changed over time.

If you are involved in faith-based political organizing, I would also highly recommend reading the brief. There were more than 1700 religious organizations allied in support of Proposition 8 and the judge makes very clear that their arguments were insufficient when it came to the law. There is much in the case that’s instructive on what is the proper role of religion in society and what is not. It explores the narrow area where church meets state.

If you want to know why gay people want to get “married,” rather than just getting “domestic partnerships” or “civil unions,” the testimonies of the witnesses are very compelling.

If you think that “loving the sinner and hating sin” has no negative repercussions, then read the section on how religion is a leading indicator in hate crimes against gays and suicide by gays.

Below I’m including a series of excerpts that I found worthy of further study. As many continue to weigh, test, study, and form our consciences on this issue, reading this ruling will aid in what deeper clarification of thought. (You can read the original ruling here or scroll to the very bottom.) Let me know what you think.

Religious Beliefs and the State
“The state’s interest in an enactment must of course be secular in nature. The state does not have an interest in enforcing private moral or religious beliefs without an accompanying secular purpose.” – U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker, on unconstitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 (4 August 2010)

State’s Interest in Marriage
“The court posed to proponent’s counsel the assumption that “the state’s interest in marriage is procreative” and inquired how permitting same-sex marriage impairs or adversely affects that interest. [Doc. 228 at 21.] Counsel replied that the inquiry was “not the legally relevant question,” [ID]but when pressed for an answer, counsel replied: “Your honor, my answer is: I don’t know. I don’t know.” [ID at 23.]

Continue reading “Clarification of Thought: New Gay Marriage Ruling in California”

Second Openly Gay Bishop Elected in Worldwide Anglican Communion

Mary Glasspool reacts during her election with Bishop Jon Bruno behind her.
Mary Glasspool reacts during her election with Bishop Jon Bruno behind her.

I was very pleased to note that the Anglican Church/Episcopal Church USA has elected two women–Mary Douglas Glasspool and Diane Jardine Bruce–to serve as assistant bishops in the Los Angeles diocese. Of note is the fact that Canon Glasspool is openly lesbian and has been in a committed relationship since 1988. With her election she becomes the second openly gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican Church. Bishop Gene Robinson was the first. Also last fall, the Church of Sweden (which is Lutheran, but in communion with the Anglican Church of England) consecrated Eva Brunne, also a partnered lesbian, as Bishop of Stockholm.

As a Roman Catholic, I’m interested in how other denominations are working through the complex issues of sexuality and the call to serve the church in ordained ministry. Over at Ekklesia, Savi Hensman wrote a nice piece (Liberating the Anglican Understanding of Sexuality) that tracks some of the journey of the Episcopal Church on the issue of sexuality:

Indeed the Episcopal Church’s openness to lesbian bishops is the result of a long process of reflection and study in keeping with the advice of numerous Anglican gatherings and the principles of international canon law. The “duty of thinking and learning” is a theme that has come up repeatedly at international gatherings. The church should learn from the work of scientists, calling upon “Christian people both to learn reverently from every new disclosure of truth, and at the same time to bear witness to the biblical message of a God and Saviour apart from whom no gift can be rightly used”, and should welcome “the increasing extent of human knowledge” and the “searching enquiries of the theologians”. In 1978 the Lambeth Conference called for “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research”, “pastoral concern for those who are homosexual” and “dialogue with them”. As understanding of human sexuality grew, and more theologians made the case for full inclusion, many in the Episcopal Church came to believe that being a woman or gay should not result in being treated as a “second-class citizen”, let alone an outsider.

Concern for justice and commitment to human rights was another theme, including, from the 1980s, those of “homosexual orientation”. In the USA and other countries covered by the Episcopal Church, LGBT people at times face persecution and violence. While opposition to such mistreatment does not automatically lead to acceptance of same-sex partnerships as a proper lifestyle for Christian leaders, it does make it harder to depersonalise a particular minority and ignore the realities of their lives. This concern for justice has also led to greater self-examination. For instance, the Anglican Consultative Council in 1990 called on “every Diocese in our Communion to consider how through its structures it may encourage its members to see that a true Christian spirituality involves a concern for God’s justice in the world, particularly in its own community.”

Various denominations have excellent new theological papers reflecting their developing understanding of human sexuality within Christian thought. Here are links to a few of them:

Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)

Some Issues in Human Sexuality: A Working Paper of the House of Bishops (Church of England)

Marriage: A United Church of Canada Understanding

‘Las Novias’: Same-Sex Marriage in Mexico City

Mexico wedding portrait
Jesusa Rodríguez and Liliana Felipe

I love Mexico. And now I have a reason to love it even more. Tomorrow, Mexico City will be the first in Latin America to put into effect laws legalizing same-sex marriage and adoption. (Mexico City legalized same-sex civil unions back in 2007.) There is, of course, sharp criticism and hand-wringing from my beloved Catholic Church hierarchy and social conservatives — but with a 50 percent approval rate for gay marriage among regular Mexicans (89 percent of whom are Catholic), I’d say that the laity are once again leading the way.

Here’s an excerpt from today’s Washington Post article:

On Thursday, [Mexico City] this sprawling megalopolis will catapult to the front lines of gay rights in Latin America when a city law legalizing same-sex marriage and adoption goes into effect. … Mexican actress Jesusa Rodríguez will marry her partner, Liliana Felipe, after 30 years together. “The important thing is that this law grants equality,” Rodríguez said. Many marriage-minded gay couples are preoccupied by concerns about the security of their loved ones. Reyna Barrera, 70, had a breast removed two months ago, and although she is weak from chemotherapy, she is busy planning her wedding to her partner of 36 years, Sandra Ponce. “This way, she is protected. She will get my pension, our house, everything from the life we built together,” said Barrera, a literature professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University.

The Legislative Assembly passed the gay marriage act by a broad majority in December, as activists cheered and PAN representatives looked on in dismay. Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, a PRD leader, signed the bill into law — a first in Latin America. … Mexico City legalized same-sex civil unions in 2007; they also are recognized in Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina, but advocates for gay rights say only marriage can protect the rights of families in such matters as property and custody. … An opinion poll by El Universal newspaper in November found that 50 percent of Mexico City respondents accepted gay marriage and 38 percent opposed it. Residents ages 18 to 39 were more likely to be supporters.

Read the whole article here.